Touring oil-covered Refugio Beach last month — just a few days after the Plains All American Pipeline spewed more than 100,000 gallons of oil onto the pristine Gaviota Coast and into the Pacific Ocean one month ago today — I could not help but think back to a similar journey I took in 1969 with my young children to East Beach in Santa Barbara after the devastating spill from Union Oil’s Platform A.
The sights and smells from these spills were incredibly similar — the noxious odor of crude oil permeating the air, wildlife drenched with oil, workers in white jumpsuits scooping oil off the sand by hand, boats busy deploying booms in the water, and miles of previously pristine shoreline covered in thick black tar.
These sights and smells are not easily forgotten; they stay with you and are a constant reminder of the need to act. Since that 1969 spill, our state and community have demanded the highest environmental protection standards for all local industries, but especially for oil and gas development. It seems clear to me that Plains is not meeting these standards, and I am working with federal, state, and local officials to find answers to the many questions that remain and to enact safeguards to better protect our communities.
Based on what we know so far, one of the biggest tragedies behind the Plains Spill is that it likely could have been prevented. Inspection results from the last five years revealed systemic and extensive corrosion throughout the length of the pipeline. An in-line inspection just weeks before the spill showed disturbing levels of corrosion on both Line 901 — the pipeline that ruptured — and Line 903, an adjoining pipeline also operated by Plains here on the Central Coast. Third-party metallurgists on site estimated the metal loss at the rupture site left only 1/16 of an inch of pipe between pressurized crude oil and our environmentally sensitive coastline. Federal inspectors from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) also found three corrosion repairs near the rupture site made after a 2012 in-line inspection, and the May 5, 2015, inspection found three other areas of “extensive corrosion” on Line 901 requiring “immediate investigation and remediation.”
Analysis of the adjoining pipeline Line 903 is just as concerning: An April 2013 investigation of a 38-mile segment of Line 903 found “99 metal loss anomalies requiring investigation.” A June 2013 inspection of another 75-mile segment of Line 903 found “a number of metal loss anomalies that may indicate general corrosion.”
This alarming pattern of corrosion on both lines is highly disturbing and simply unacceptable. This begs the question, just what is the state of the thousands of miles of pipeline running throughout our country and under our communities?
As the images of this spill fade from national headlines, we cannot let the impetus to improve safety fade as well. I have continued to work on behalf of the Central Coast community in Washington to call attention to this spill, address the failures in oversight that allowed it to happen, and promote ways to prevent similar disasters in the future. These efforts will take time, and I am committed to working until all questions are answered and corrective actions are taken by all involved.
In the month since the spill, I have met personally with the leadership of Plains, PHMSA, and the response team to demand answers and transparency for our community. In light of the evidence, I have also called for the continued shutdown of both Lines 901 and 903 until they can be proven safe and the corrosion issues are addressed.
Congress has an essential role to play in ensuring that this spill is cleaned up and that corrective actions are taken both by Plains and PHMSA to prevent future tragedies. I am pleased to announce that the House of Representatives recently passed an amendment I authored to help push federal regulators to finalize enhanced safety rules for oil pipelines, and I have also called for an oversight hearing to investigate the causes of and response to the Plains Spill, as well as the adequacy of current federal spill detection and prevention regulations. And this is just the first step. Later this year the Energy and Commerce Committee, of which I am a senior member, will be considering comprehensive pipeline safety legislation. During that debate, please know that I will make sure that the Plains Oil Spill is a central topic of discussion, ensuring that we strengthen federal pipeline regulations to help prevent a tragedy like this from happening again.
I have spent my entire congressional career working to stop new offshore oil and gas development and prevent these types of spills. While we have successfully prevented expansion of drilling along our coast, the Plains Spill reminds us that drilling and transporting oil is an inherently dangerous, dirty business that poses serious risks to our economy and environment. There is simply no such thing as a truly safe pipeline.
The Plains Spill is yet another tragic reminder that oil spills happen and will continue to happen as long as we depend on fossil fuels for our energy needs. Until we can move beyond oil, we must do everything we can to ensure safety — not profit — remains our number one priority. Our economy and our environment depend on it.